Queen Victoria, which debuted in 2007, lacks some of the high profile glitz of Queen Mary 2, its much larger sibling -- but never mind. The ship is large enough to feature plenty of space, but also cosy enough to foster a sense of intimacy, and is actually the most beautiful ship Cunard has built (at least in my day).
The ship's interior pays many tributes to Cunard's venerable history (the British line dates back to 1840) as well as to England. These celebratory nods range from black and white photos of the rich and famous as they travelled on various Cunard steamers to an homage to Queen Victoria herself in the design of the two-deck high Queen's Room, meant to replicate the general ambience of Osborne House, the monarch's favourite residence.
Polished veneer on the walls in staircases also harks back to the age of liners; trumpet light fixtures in the Chart Room Bar remind us of those that graced the First Class Observation Lounge on the first Queen Mary (1936).
As important as history is in creating a certain elegant ambience onboard, what makes it all work is that Cunard has successfully fused heritage with modernity. Cabins are relatively state of the art while the Golden Lion pub boasts an antique-ish pressed tin pub ceiling.
Ultimately, Queen Victoria doesn't awe passengers with breathtaking extravaganzas as does Queen Mary 2 (which it must be admitted I admire even so). It's grand -- yet with warm colours, familiar and competent service and plenty of smallish-sized public rooms, it's built on a human scale. This is a much more British ship in the sense that it's overall ambience is understated rather than stunning. Ultimately, it's worthy of note that while there's a museum on the ship, by no means is Queen Victoria a mere museum itself.
Queen Victoria has three "main" dining venues. Passengers occupying the most expensive cabins (cabin grades Q1 to Q7) dine at the intimate Queens Grill. Those booked into the next most luxurious accommodations (P1 to P4 grades) are assigned to the Princess Grill, which is just as cosy. And for the majority of passengers, residing in everything from inside staterooms to cabins with balconies, the Britannia Grill, a more traditional big-ship restaurant, is the eatery of choice.
All three are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Britannia is open seating for breakfast and lunch and then goes to a set-seating scenario at dinnertime (6 and 8:30 p.m.). Oddly, and this is a Cunard tradition, those dining at either of the Grills have assigned tables for breakfast, lunch and dinner, though can dine at any time during the restaurants' opening hours.
As an occupant of a Britannia-class cabin, I dined there. The Britannia Restaurant is located in the stern of the ship and windows on the lower level offer a good view of the sea, while on the upper level you will mainly see the promenade deck. The setting is rather elegant, with a work of art depicting Western Europe fronted by a huge globe on a black marble plinth as centrepieces.
The food is generally pleasant and the same goes with the service. There is a good choice of options for each meal in general and for dinner in particular. For instance, in recognition of loyal clientele from both sides of the Atlantic, you can choose British or American bacon for breakfast -- the latter one being crispy and the former not quite so. A spa menu offers a lighter yet enjoyable option for each meal.
The Britannia is a large room, and although unobtrusive partitions have been used to create a feeling of intimacy, the lack of that particular feeling is the venue's biggest shortcoming. This restaurant is not particularly bad in this sense compared to other ships -- rather, it's the fact that the big space is hardly in tune with the otherwise cosy elegance created by the mostly small public rooms onboard. The tables at the stern on the lower level (Deck 2) are probably best if you want to feel like you're eating in a more private venue.
Like Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria's alternative restaurant is Todd English. The American chef, known for the success of Olives, his Mediterranean-inspired chain of restaurants, offers similar fare here. Lunch is served from midday until 2 p.m. and involves a $20 per person cover charge. Dinner is available from 6 until 9:30 p.m. and the service fee is $30. You need to book a table in advance, but it is worth the effort and every cent.
Both the restaurant and an adjacent bar are decorated in warm reds, browns and yellows. Banquettes on the port side offer a sea view, and while a few tables are located in the centre of this rectangular room, it maintains a feeling of intimacy throughout. Imaginative use of soft furnishings, such as curtains to gently separate the tables by the windows, work to fine effect.
The food is just great. While purists would argue that Maine is not necessarily known for its crab, the so-named "Maine crabcake" is paired with a fiery sweet and sour tomato sauce as a starter. Excellent as well was the pan-seared salmon as the main course. A Thai coffee tiramisu to finish the meal convinced me that it would be a good idea to come back the next day.
There is an excellent selection of wines, with prices from the low $30's upwards to Petrus 1994, which will set you back to the tune of $2,000. You can also buy a good selection of wines by the glass -- Nobilio Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is $6 per 12.5 cl glass. The service is attentive, yet you never feel that somebody is breathing down your neck. Presentation of the food scores a high mark as well.
The Golden Lion pub on Deck 2 serves lunch from midday to 2 p.m., with British pub grub such as bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes), and fish and chips on the menu. Be prepared: With lots of Brits onboard, the place gets very busy!
The Lido, the ship's buffet area, is perhaps the least successful of all dining venues.The quality of the food is fine -- if not memorable -- but what doesn't work well is the venue's layout. In an era of ship design when cruise lines have moved to buffet "stations" (separate areas for salads, hot meals, sandwiches, desserts and the like), Queen Victoria, inexplicably has retained a cafeteria mentality. As such queues develop very easily.
Open pretty much around the clock, you can begin the day with Continental breakfast from 4 until 6:30 a.m., move on to full breakfast from 6:30 until 11 a.m., return for lunch from 11:30 a.m. until after 3 p.m., and enjoy pre-dinner snacks like pizza afterward.
Dinner is served at the Lido for those passengers who want a casual, sit-down alterative to main dining; it's available from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. with waiter service. A snack service is available through the wee hours.
On Queen Victoria, in-cabin food service is available 24 hours at no extra charge. The food menu on offer depends whether you travel in Grill or Britannia accommodations; if you have opted for the latter, be prepared for a limited number of choices in terms of food. The Mediterranean salad of seafood is pleasant and the hamburger substantial. Your order arrives in about 25 to 35 minutes. Continental breakfast is served to your cabin as well, with a reasonably good choice of options and prompt service.
Finally, Cunard Line prides itself on its afternoon tea service -- and for a reason. This ceremony, performed every day from 3:30 until 4:30 p.m. in the Queens Room and Grills Lounge (even when in port), reminds you of grander days of ocean travel. A big table is laid in the centre of the room, from which all white-gloved waiters leave simultaneously to serve tea first and then sandwiches and scones with jam.
Queen Victoria has 32 different cabin grades, ranging from inside twin rooms of some 152 square ft. to two Grand Suites of some 2,000 square ft., including balcony. A standard outside cabin of C3 grade comes with two cupboards with hanging space and a third one with shelves and a safe. A desk has two drawers and the two night tables have a shelf each. There is a comfy two-seater sofa with cushions and a small table. The carpet is of good quality, and you feel like you're sinking when you walk barefooted.
The bathroom is on the compact side, yet the shower curtain is thick and helps to keep water away from where it does not belong. A set of Gilchrist & Soames products awaits you in the bathroom -- the body lotion bottle has a mouth big enough to get little doses out of it rather than the whole contents at one go, which is a nice little detail. The bed is wide and comfortable and has three pillows for each person.
So far so good, but then come the hiccups. Firstly, the TV is too far to one side, making it difficult to comfortably watch it from the bed. The high-backed chair by the desk requires both hands to move. Well, you can watch the TV from the sofa and use both hands to move the chair, but there's nothing you can do about the third problem.
Many cabins have just two drawers. While the cupboard space is adequate for cruises of maybe up to 14 nights, for longer cruises, the shortage of drawer space is a major flaw.
Cabin grades C4 and C5 have views obstructed by lifeboats, while the A6 grade accommodations on Deck 5 have views partially obstructed by the life saving equipment. If you are looking at this range of accommodation, the C3 grade on Deck 1, although lower in the ship, may be an attractive option as the views are not blocked from here. The ship seems to cope with rough seas with less slamming than some others, which is good news when considering sleep at night.
All cabins have flat-screen televisions with some 41 channels, including nine focusing on music. Movies in French, German and Spanish each have their own channel, while the rest of the diverse output -- action, comedy and classic movies as well as news -- are in English. Some onboard events, notably enrichment lectures, are filmed and rebroadcast on in-cabin systems.
The principal public rooms are located on Decks 2 and 3. A library with some 6,000 volumes on the port side of Decks 2 and 3 is highlighted by an elegant spiral staircase and comfortable seating. It features titles in French, Spanish and German in addition to English. The book selection, while of course not on a par with the much larger Queen Mary 2, is excellent, with plenty of new titles along with standard favourites. Adjacent to the library on Deck 3 is the card room.
Featuring four large street lantern-style light fixtures and a clock that chimes to the tune of the Big Ben in London (the chime runs seven minutes late), the Royal Arcade is the shopping heart of the ship. It provides the traditional offerings like clothing and accessories, but there's also an art gallery, where works coming up for auction can be inspected. A jewellery shop sells, among other things, copies of works by Faberge & Cie, jewellers to the Imperial Russian Court. An Easter egg can set you back $20,000. Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Russian tsarina and wife of Nicholas II, was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
Cunardia, an interactive museum, tells the story of Cunard Line since it was created as the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in 1840 by Samuel Cunard. Touch-screen programmes feature stories about Cunard's links with British royalty, as well as the wartime efforts of the company, e.g. the Cunard Yanks and young Brits who served on Cunard ships after World War II.
Off the Grand Lobby on Deck 1 is the purser's office and the tour office, as well as the ship's Internet Centre.
Self-service launderettes can be found on passenger Decks 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.
A daily charge of $11 for Britannia passengers and $13 per day for Queens and Princess Grill passengers is automatically added to your shipboard account as gratuity for the hotel and restaurant staff. A 15 percent tip is added to all bar and spa treatment prices.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The Cunard Royal Spa is located forward on Deck 9. Facing forward is a gym that may not be the largest on the high seas, but still offers a good range of equipment both for cardiovascular and resistance training. It has staff that runs classes such as pilates, indoor cycling or salsa aerobics for a fee.
The treatment rooms are all on the port side and feature a shower and a window. Operated by Steiner Leisure, the spa offers a good range of treatments, provided by a friendly and professional staff in a pleasant atmosphere.
Adjacent to the spa reception area is a thermal suite with four different kinds of steam rooms, plus beds with heated ceramic tiles. A thermal pool without water jets is nearby. A day pass to the thermal suite and hydro pool costs between $35 and $300 for one- to 20-day passes.
The ship has two swimming pools, the Pavilion Pool amidships and the Lido pool aft, both on Deck 9. While the latter is of normal depth, the Pavilion pool is only some 4 feet deep on the shallow end and a foot or so more in the deep end. There are two Jacuzzis adjacent to each pool. Towels are provided at each sunbed. On nice days the sun deck was unpleasantly cluttered and crowded.
The Winter Garden, located amidship and adjacent to a pool area, is the place for table tennis. The room has cushioned, wicker-style furniture and art auctions are held here. It also features a bar that serves fresh-squeezed drinks, smoothies and coffee along with traditional cocktails (although on my visit the coffee machine broke first followed by the fruit squeezer). A sliding glass roof was never opened on a 10-night Atlantic Islands cruise in April, and while doors open to the pool area forward, wind conditions mean that only those on the starboard side are kept open. The wind still reaches the forward part of the lido further aft.
Passengers in the Grills accommodation can enjoy the privilege of their own sun deck, which delivers them from the plight of trying to find a place on the pool decks below. The Courtyard is an elegant outdoor space that has a water feature and lanterns. It too is a Grill-only option and offers al fresco dining during good weather.
The outer decks are a weak point of Queen Victoria, and this hurts those with a sporty lifestyle. The promenade deck (Deck 3) does not run around the vessel as the forward part is marked crew only. The best you can do is a U-shaped walk. There is no jogging track at all. A jogging track and a wrap-around promenade deck would warrant a half point rise in the rating of these facilities.
On a positive note, those who like the fresh sea air, but can do with a little bit less exercise will find the reclining seats on the promenade deck very pleasant -- and even more so thanks to the fact that each one has a warm steamer blanket placed on it. A chilly wind is no threat to the idea of a snooze in the fresh sea air!
For the sports enthusiast, the ship does provide you with outdoor games on Deck 11, such as shuffle board and paddle tennis. You can practise your golf as well. And as Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, loved fencing, the ship offers classes in this noble sport, held in the Queens Room. It's the first time that fencing has been featured on a modern cruise liner.
Queen Victoria has a children's playroom with toys on the starboard side of Deck 10 and The Zone, a teenagers' room, with computer games on the opposite side of the youngsters' domain. Both feature outdoor deck space as well. However, this is not primarily a ship that caters to families with children and on a 10-night cruise to the Canary Islands and Portugal in the spring of 2008, there were very few youngsters onboard. Children must be at least one year old in 2011, or two years old for 2012 itineraries and beyond, to participate in the nursery program without parental supervision.
On Queen Victoria, you will be travelling mainly with quite well-traveled, well-to-do people in their 50's (and up). However, the ship does attract first-timers too, and it's not a bad choice for those who want an elegant experience that focuses on good entertainment and service.
A spring cruise from Southampton in April had some 1,500 Brits, 200 Americans and around 200 other nationalities from around 30 countries onboard. The ship caters mainly to couples -- there were quite a few gay ones too on the cruise -- but you will feel welcome if you come just on your own.
As the duration and geographical coverage of the cruises the ship takes vary greatly, from a four-night mini-cruise to circumnavigation, so too will the passenger mix.
The first and last night of your cruise will be "elegant casual" (jacket but no tie), while up to three sea days each week will be formal (black tie or black suit). Port days and sea days beyond the up to three formal nights are semi-formal (jacket and tie).
Practically everyone observes the dress code on formal nights and so much the better: This is an elegant ship and looking at your best on those evenings is definitively part of that experience.
Here Queen Victoria excels. The Royal Court Theatre and the Queens Room are the principal venues for entertainment onboard. The three-deck-high Royal Court Theatre forward is done up in traditional, elegant style, using lots of red velvet. It features 10 private boxes, a first on a cruise ship, which can be booked at $50 per couple for shows. The cost includes finger sandwiches and Champagne prior to the show and more bubbly in the box. For other events, they are open on first-in, first-served basis (and no extras are offered).
The shows range from a tribute to Celtic music and dance to Victoriana, which loosely traces the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) in a light fashion. I admired the spirit, energy and talent of the young performers. Royal Court is also the venue for concerts and lectures -- in April 2008, the young British soprano Annette Wardell -- who's performed at Glyndebourne and at the royal palaces of Kensignton and Buckingham -- sang here for an enthusiastic, full house.
The Queens Room on Deck 2 with a mezzanine on the starboard side on Deck 3 must be one of the most beautiful public rooms on any ship. With a design inspired by the ballroom at Osborne House, Queen Victoria's Italianate villa on the Isle of Wight, it is the setting for balls, cocktail receptions, concerts, afternoon tea and classes of fencing, favourite sport of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. Its huge chandeliers and elegant columns give the space enormous dignity and grace that is reminiscent of great liners of the past. A string quartet also occasionally plays in the Grand Lobby. The Queens Room also features dance classes in the daytime that are very popular and in the evenings, gentleman hosts will lead single ladies to the floor to dance to the tunes of the ship's orchestra.
The Veuve Cliquot Champagne Bar, Cafe Carinthia and the Chart Room Bar that follow each other on the starboard side of Deck 2 are all done in warm, yellow and brown colours. The champagne bar serves strawberries with your glass of bubbly, while a cinnamon Danish with mid-morning coffee comes with a small bowl of raspberries and blackberries. The Chart Room Bar features comfy seats with cushions in true British style, while the trumpet light fixtures are copies of ones that graced the First Class cocktail bar on the first Queen Mary (1936).
A casino with a bar is located just aft of the theatre. Americans will find it small while for Brits it's likely to be just big enough.
On the upper decks, the Commodore Club observation lounge forward on Deck 10 has wall-to-ceiling windows on three sides. The windows, however, are in the form of a V that lies on its side with the edge pointing forward, which means that at strong headwinds a howl of wind accompanies the tunes of the band. The furnishing is traditional with Chesterfield-style leather seats. Next door, Churchill's Cigar Lounge is a small, clubby room for a drink and a smoke with friends.
Hemispheres, the ship's circular night club on Deck 10, is a pleasant room in itself, but does not seem to get very busy. It's best for night owls who want a place to go once the ballroom dancing is finished in the Queens Room. It holds enrichment lectures during daytime hours.
Passengers in the Grills accommodations have a lounge reserved for their sole use that's adjacent to the Queens and Princess Grill restaurants on Deck 11.
An enrichment programme called Cunard Insights features lectures on various topics. These can include ones as varied as Baroque architecture in Portugal and life as a crewmember of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution on the coasts of Britain. The lectures are later made available on your cabin's television. The Cunard Book Club enables passengers to have literary discussions led by the ship's librarian, and on select voyages, members of the Royal Astronomical Society come onboard to teach about the constellations and space and lead star-gazing nights.
Queen Victoria also offers an extensive computer learning program in its Apple Learning Centre. Apple iStudy courses, taught on iMac computers, cover topics such as basic computer skills on Macs and PCs, photo editing, movie making, and using new technology such as Facebook and iPads.
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